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Why ‘Godzilla Minus One’ Is the Biggest Unexpected Hit Since ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’

The monster movie is the monster hit of the holiday season

spinner image A scene from the film "Godzilla Minus One"
Toho Studios

Since 1954, the monster Godzilla has survived artillery bombardment, death rays, lightning strikes and atomic blasts, but his indestructible popularity as a movie character is even more impressive. He’s currently headlining the most unexpectedly popular action film of the holiday season, Godzilla Minus One, a 1940s period piece that just became North America’s top-grossing live-action Japanese film of all time, with the biggest debut of any 2023 foreign film.

How an overgrown lizard conquered America this month

With a 97 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 98 percent audience score, Godzilla Minus One hits that magic franchise sweet spot by giving the audience what it wanted, but not in the form it expected.

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What audiences want from Godzilla movies is epic mayhem, pitched somewhere between a horror film and a disaster picture. Sometimes there’s an element of the action or superhero flick, as in the many Godzilla films wherein the big green guy plays either the savior or the villain opposite guest-starring beasties (King Kong, Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla). Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, 59, Godzilla Minus One initially seems as if it’s going to take the franchise back to its roots and deliver a spare and simple reimagining of Godzilla as a Frankenstein’s monster writ large, rising from irradiated depths to punish humanity for its arrogance.

spinner image Ryunosuke Kamiki and Minami Hamabe star in the film "Godzilla Minus One."
(Left to right) Ryunosuke Kamiki and Minami Hamabe star in "Godzilla Minus One."
Toho Studios

But wait, there’s more!

The movie delivers all those elements with panache — and it surprises by giving viewers a lot more. It’s a chaste romance between complicated adults, an ex-kamikaze pilot (Ryunosuke Kamiki), shunned for his refusal to die for Japan during the war’s final days, and his partner, a young woman (Minami Hamabe) who has adopted a war orphan. It’s also a touching story about survivor’s guilt in wartime, a nuanced discussion of whether soldiers are still required to sacrifice themselves after a war has become unwinnable and a poetic analogy for what it feels like to be swept up in unimaginably huge events.

It’s also a hymn to the power of collective action by ordinary citizens, who come together to battle the invader after realizing that their government is suppressing the truth about what’s causing a string of mysterious shipwrecks — until Godzilla, enlarged by hydrogen blasts, levels Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza shopping district with his nuclear breath.

Monsters just wanna have fun

While it’s a pretty somber movie overall, it also has a sense of fun, and a nearly unerring sense of when it’s time to lighten up and let one of the film’s many memorable supporting characters provide comic relief. The script draws on a long history of beloved adventure, epic and war films, from Steven Spielberg’s original Jaws (with the big green guy substituting for the great white shark) to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, plus character-driven World War II and postwar classics like Mrs. MiniverThe Third ManTokyo Story and The Best Years of Our Lives.

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spinner image A closeup of Godzilla in "Godzilla Minus One"
Toho Studios

What does the new Godzilla have to do with the original Godzilla?

When he first stomped Tokyo in 1954’s Gojira (Godzilla in the U.S.), the character was sort of a gigantic, irradiated Frankenstein’s monster, symbolizing the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Cold War fears of nuclear apocalypse. But he’s also been portrayed as a fire-breathing national mascot, protecting Japan against bad monsters and robots. In a recent English-language film series released by Warner Bros., costarring King Kong, Godzilla is part of an ancient race of Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) from the hollow center of the earth. The new film brings Godzilla the franchise back to its origins. It’s also the first Godzilla movie that’s a period piece, set between 1945 and ’47.​​

How successful has the Godzilla franchise been?​​​

Overall, the Godzilla franchise has been quite successful globally, releasing 37 live-action features in Japan and the United States since the 1950s. There have also been TV series including a 1970s animated show for kids and the current Apple TV saga Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, in which Kurt Russell, 72, and his son Wyatt play the same government investigator in different time periods. But since the first Godzilla, none of these projects have achieved Star Wars or Marvel-level success. In the 1970s, the last great heyday of Japanese Godzilla movies in the U.S. market, audiences were more likely to see the films at drive-ins or on one of the small screens at a multiplex than in big auditoriums at prestigious venues — which is where Godzilla Minus One has been playing this year, to the surprise of nearly everyone, including its creators. As of this writing, the movie is approaching $90 million globally against a $16 million budget, making it one of the most successful releases of 2023.​​​

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spinner image Godzilla roaring while standing in a debris of destruction in a city in "Godzilla Minus One."
Toho Studios

Why is ‘Godzilla Minus One’ an unexpected smash?

Warner Bros’ English-language Godzilla and King Kong films, as well as the Pacific Rim monsters-versus-robots films, have been very successful, stoking Western hunger for more giant monster projects. The 2016 Toho movie Shin Godzilla also helped pave the way: it was a cult sensation in the United States that gained a much wider audience through home streaming. Shin Godzilla retold the botched government response to the Fukishima disaster with Godzilla and let the result be grimly funny in the manner of beloved American black comedies like Dr. Strangelove. (The hero of the story is a lowly government clerk who keeps getting promoted to increasingly important jobs because everyone else keeps getting stomped by Godzilla.)​​

Is the movie worth watching if you’re not already a Godzilla fan?

Godzilla Minus One is both a technically and dramatically excellent movie, with such high-quality special effects, mixing old and new techniques, that it’s impossible for Western critics to condescend to them, as was the case in earlier decades when the films were released in English-speaking countries with poor dubbing and watched by viewers who weren’t used to seeing “giant creatures” that were obviously actors in suits. It also helped that Toho has been on an impressive creative run in recent years, reimagining the Godzilla movies and other studio properties, including the long-running superhero franchise Kamen Rider, as auteur blockbusters that each had their own distinct style, flavor and set of themes. Most importantly, it’s an emotionally involving, suspenseful, epic drama about people trying to survive under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and arguably one of the only Godzilla films where the humans are as interesting as the monsters. That ordinary citizens end up taking matters in their own hands when they realize the government will only pass the buck and deny responsibility gives the story an added inspirational punch that makes it appealing to every culture, including America’s.​

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